Games 6/1/10: ModNation Racers, Red Dead Redemption, Looksley's Line Up

ModNation Racers
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: PSP
From: San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

“ModNation Racers” successfully reinvigorates the cobwebbed kart racing genre by allowing players to design and share fully customized drivers, karts and tracks with enormous ease and boundless creative license, and the interfaces through which it does this are brilliantly conceived.

How remarkable, then, that even without any of those tools, this still would signify a badly-needed leap forward.

Credit for that goes to “MNR’s” actual racing action, which, even against A.I. opponents, is often as exhilarating as its creation and community tools. The sense of speed and danger is leagues beyond anything seen in recent “Mario Kart” games, and there’s more for players to do than hold down the gas, look for shortcuts, dispatch power-ups and hope no one cheats them out of a lead when they finally take one.

Drifting, catching air and drafting all build turbo, which players can apply to speed boosts. But the turbo also works as currency for a fantastic sideswipe maneuver, which lets players drive offensively without waiting for a power-up, as well as a forcefield that allows frontrunners to fend off power-up attacks instead of simply drive scared like sitting ducks. Timing a perfect forcefield defense isn’t easy at all, but the ability to even do so at least puts players’ fates in their own hands for a change. (Take notes, Nintendo.)

All of these ideas gel thanks to a control scheme that just feels great. Driving dangerously and racking up huge drifts is fun without being punishing if you mess up, and perfecting the timing and distance needed for a perfect attack on another driver is satisfying not only because of how fluid the controls are, but also because of how great everything looks when a strike hits its target.

For those who pick up “Racers” with no desire to play with others, the selection of on-disc tracks is nicely varied and the default difficulty a strong balance of accessible and tough. The career mode tells an actual story, and the cutscenes between races are funny and surprisingly polished.

But to play “MNR” this way is to completely miss the point of its community and creation tools, which, outside of some unfortunately long load times, mesh together under one staggeringly slick umbrella.

“MNR’s” driver and kart creation interfaces should feel familiar to anyone who has created a customized character or vehicle in another game. Both are easy to use, and while playing through the game unlocks more useable parts, the extreme flexibility of the sizing, placement and coloring tools makes the default selection feel nearly limitless as is.

The track editor, somewhat shockingly, is just as simple to use. Terrain tools allow players to model the environment like clay, and laying track is as simple as driving a track-laying-vehicle around an blank canvas. Ambitious players can overlap track and add numerous props to the area however they please, but “MNR” also provides auto-complete and auto-populate shortcuts for those who want to do something quick and dirty.

All of these creations come together in a supremely slick virtual online world that allows players, driving around in their karts as if in an MMO, to mingle with other players, download other players’ creations, and challenge anyone in the area to races on the fly. Even those who had no intention ever to race online might change their mind once they see how fantastically accessible doing so is here.


Red Dead Redemption
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Rockstar San Diego
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)

The problem with most video game westerns is that you don’t need to appreciate the Old West to appreciate them. They’re typically designed in the mold of other games, subbing in Old West iconography but otherwise bearing little distinction from so many other shooters covering completely different periods.

“Red Dead Redemption” doesn’t have this problem, because while many of its underpinnings are unmistakably lifted from Rockstar’s “Grand Theft Auto” games, the degree to which Rockstar caters those parts to the setting — instead of the usual other way around — gives it more Wild West conviction than the sum of almost every virtual western that preceded it.

The level of conviction isn’t fully apparent until the storyline is a few hours old, but “Redemption” hints at it almost as soon as the tutorial missions end and players are free to explore the world on their terms.

At first, it’s a little disconcerting. New Austin’s vast wilderness sits in striking contrast to Liberty City’s bustling streets, but it’s no smaller a landscape, and there appears to be less to do between towns. Despite some clever control touches, riding horses naturally is slower and more laborious than driving cars, and the overly simple early missions provide little solace when players retreat back to the storyline for excitement.

But “Redemption” gradually brings its world alive. Characters met early on come together for significantly more exciting (and challenging) missions, and as players’ renown increases, so does the variety of activities in town (poker, duels, horseshoes, bounties and more) and on the frontier (herding challenges, persistent missions for strangers, even some light agriculture appreciation).

Perhaps most impressive is “Redemption’s” attention to detail with regard to wildlife. The horses display personalities and credible mannerisms. Coyotes and wolves attack at night, and bears are to be feared just as skunks, deer and birds scurry at any sign of trouble. (Sidebar: “Redemption’s” audiovisual presentation of weather patterns and day/night cycles is magnificent.) The game offers challenges to players who wish to hunt for profit, but they’re entirely optional if you’d rather just observe and save the bullets for the bandits.

Per Rockstar tradition, “Redemption” allows players to be as good or evil as they please, and the systems in place for outrunning the law make it tempting to be the bad guy.

But “Redemption’s” central storyline — which puts players in the shoes of a reformed scoundrel-turned-devoted husband whose only desire is to protect his family — makes it equally difficult not to want to fly right. All the things that made “Grand Theft Auto 4’s” story so good — strong characters, terrific voice acting, meticulous dialogue and a true sense of setting — are present here as well, and “Redemption’s” leading protagonist is easily the most likable Rockstar creation yet.

Players with a morality complex might prefer to just flash their evil side online. “Redemption” includes a couple traditional competitive multiplayer modes, but its best asset is Free Roam mode, which drops up to 16 players inside a world full of A.I. characters and allows anything to go. Players can level up and unlock new gear by teaming up and completing co-op challenges scattered around the map, but they just as easily can turn on each other or wreak random havoc against the A.I. It’s your Old West playground, and Rockstar cares not what you do in it.


Looksley’s Line Up
For: Nintendo DSi via Nintendo DSiWare Shop
From: Good-Feel Co./Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $5

after Nintendo announced the Nintendo 3DS earlier this year, Youtube users mistook a video of “Looksley’s Line Up” as a sample of what games would look like on the futuristic forthcoming handheld. They were wrong, of course, but if that isn’t a testament to how cool “LLU” is when it’s working, nothing is. The object of “LLU” is pretty simple: Find hidden letters and objects in the environment. But rather than be just another mindless object finder, “LLU” presents its levels as virtual, layered 3D dioramas. The game tracks the player’s head movements with the DSi’s front-facing camera, and players, holding the device like a book, must move their head or the device around to line up scenery different ways to make those objects and letters appear. As might be expected when using a very low-definition camera, “LLU” can be a finicky game, and while setting up the head tracking is painless, there will be times when you’ll have to recalibrate due to changes in lighting or just because the camera won’t cooperate. But that’s the price of innovation, and it’s a price well-paid when “LLU” works. Altering the environmental perspective with just a twitch of the head is extremely cool, and the normally mundane endeavor of finding objects feels fresh and rewarding with the extra element of deciphering optical illusions thrown into the mix.